A Book Review Essay by John Talbird.
“Words flown out can’t be caught on the wing.”
Supposedly, this is a saying from Martin Luther, although Google gives me no hits except for from Ingmar Bergman’s novel, The Best Intentions (1991), where it is referenced. Perhaps it’s not an accurate quote in English or perhaps Bergman completely manufactured it. I don’t know and it probably doesn’t matter. The quote is uttered by Henrik Bergman, the fictionalized version of the author’s father. He and his fiancée, Anna Åkerblom, who stands in for the author’s real-life mother, have just fought viciously. They are young, in their twenties, disagree over how and where their wedding should take place and this disagreement turns into nastiness and violence – in an empty church, no less. Anna says that Henrik is an idiot, that he often isn’t clean and smells of sweat. Henrik strikes her. The future of their life together is in doubt. But these two are yoked together, despite their obvious unsuitability.
I say “obvious,” except that it is anything but, despite the fact that Anna’s mother tries mightily for the first half of the novel to keep the two apart. If they’re so unsuitable, why did they marry? If they were so cruel to each other and so abusive – physically, verbally, psychologically – then why did they stay together? These seem to be questions that the author is trying and, I suspect, failing to answer. He has been asking these questions for his entire creative life in such classic films as The Passion of Anna (1969), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Fanny and Alexander (1982). These questions are a central part of his trilogy of novels that he wrote in his early-to-late seventies – The Best Intentions, Private Confessions (1996), and Sunday’s Children (1993, all available in new editions from Arcade Publishing) – years after he retired from theatrical cinema after Fanny and Alexander. (He continued to make films for Swedish television on into the 21st century.)
The first novel in the trilogy, The Best Intentions, is almost not a novel at all, but a hybrid work, a combination of fiction, screenplay, and memoir. In fact, despite the subheading, “A Novel,” it’s clear that Bergman always intended it to be a film. He handpicked Billie August to be the director and the film would go on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1992. This is the only of the three novels which comes with a Prologue from the author where he explains the book’s sources (a trove of photographs Bergman inherited after his parents’ deaths) and why he wrote an autobiographical novel (inspired after the publication of his memoir, The Magic Lantern in 1987). Clearly, he saw this as a film first, although he wouldn’t be filming it himself, and a novel, second:
This book has not in any way been adapted to the finished film. It has had to remain as it was written: The words stand unchallenged and I hope have a life of their own, like a performance of its own in the mind of the reader. (Prologue, np)
In some ways this is good. We see the way Bergman explored this new genre, the novel, and how it overlapped with film, the medium he had given over forty years of his life to. Sometimes the narrator will break the fourth wall and, not only recognize that this autobiographical artifact is being created by a real-life person, but that he sees the novel as subservient to the apotheosis of this narrative in its final construct as film: “If the producer has plenty of money, he is very welcome to portray all these festivities on film. Things of that kind are called ‘production values,’ after all” (185).
But most of the novel is not a metafictional game for the author, but a deadly serious examination of his parents’ lives at the time they met in their early 20s a few years before the first World War. In the opening scene, Henrik has been summoned to visit his grandfather, a stern man who abandoned Henrik and his mother to their poverty after his son died. The grandfather, Fredrik, informs his grandson that his grandmother is dying, that she has requested that Henrik visit her in the hospital so that she can beg his forgiveness in the part she played in his abandonment. Fredrik says that, in return for this simple visit, he is willing to pay off the debts that Henrik has accrued in seminary and also, he will give Henrik’s mother a monthly stipend for the rest of her life. Without pause, Henrik refuses the offer in the coldest, angriest possible way. This brief scene tells us everything we need to know about this character and, in addition, everything we need to know about the author’s feelings about his real, historical father. Henrik is stubborn, unforgiving, vengeful, and doesn’t care how his actions will affect others as long as he sticks by his own self-aggrandizing ideals.
The story of the novel is wonderfully vivid and engaging though its execution is often clumsy. Dialogue seems to be the author’s biggest challenge. Usually, he presents it in script form with no action, description, exposition, etc. For instance:
Johan: Ow, now you’ve cut my little toe off.
Karin: It’s so hard to see. Can’t you turn a little?
Johan: Then I can’t see to read.
Karin: I can’t think what you do to your toenails (108).
But then sometimes, Bergman presents one person’s dialogue crammed together into one paragraph, muting everyone else in the room:
Are you really going to go? You’re not well. For God’s sake, there must be limits to your sense of duty. I’ve been skiing in Old Upsala. It’s twenty-five below zero. I’m going to have a brandy. Then I’m off to work. I’m working in the afternoons, so I won’t see you for a while. I’ll be coming to Stockholm sometime next week. We’ll go to Dramaten and see Strindberg’s play. Look after yourself, beloved little sister. Give me a kiss. Shall I take a message to Henrik? We’ll both be singing tomorrow evening. Shall I give him your regards? All right, I won’t give him your regards. Farewell, then, my little cranberry heart! (103)
There seems to be no rhyme or reason about how Bergman presents dialogue at different points in the narrative. Also, there is quite a bit of redundancy. Some of the dialogue repeats information we’ve already been told by the narrative voice and vice versa. These are the kind of flaws that an editor would usually point out. But I suppose it’s intimidating to ask one of the greatest directors of all time to revise his novel. After reading it, though, it’s hard not to see that prologue, especially the statement “It has had to remain as it was written,” as an excuse for sloppiness as much as anything else.
Bergman’s second and third novels in the trilogy are slimmer and more capable as stand-alone works of art. In fact, Sunday’s Children is masterful and I would argue is equal to any except for the very greatest of Bergman’s films (i.e. Wild Strawberries , The Seventh Seal  Persona ). Like The Best Intentions, these two novels have also been adapted into film – Sunday’s Children by his son Daniel in 1992 (a year before it was published) and Private Confessions by former lover and frequent collaborator Liv Ullmann in 1996 for Swedish television. The cinematic versions of these two narratives haven’t been as celebrated in the US as The Best Intentions which is probably why it’s more difficult to see them here. (There is a lousy unsubtitled cut of Sunday’s Children on Youtube.) Hopefully, they’ll be available on disc or for streaming in the future.
Private Confessions, although it was published last, is considered the second novel in the trilogy. It is about Bergman’s mother’s affair with a young man and her attempt to come to terms with her desires and feelings of guilt. Like in The Best Intentions, the mother is Anna (though the name of Bergman’s real-life mother was Karin). The book is told as a series of five “conversations” taking place over a period of almost thirty years. Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister and Martin Luther hangs over the proceedings of all three novels. In Private Confessions, the minister Jacob, Anna’s first confessor, tells her, “Most people think Luther abolished confession. But he didn’t. He prescribed what he called ‘private conversation’” (18). We learn in this first confession that Anna has taken up with a younger theology student, Tomas, an acquaintance of her husband Henrik. We learn that Anna has often been unhappy in her marriage, that she can’t stomach sex with her husband, that sex with Tomas is the first physical pleasure she’s felt. Jacob – called Uncle Jacob in the story though it doesn’t seem that they’re blood related – tells her, not only that she must cut off contact with Tomas, for his sake as much as hers, but that she must confess all to her husband. She does this in the second private conversation which takes place the following month. Surprisingly, Henrik doesn’t react with rage, at first. He is the way you might imagine any pastor to be: non-judging, a careful listener, generous in his patience. But this façade crumbles quickly and before a day passes, he is more like the character we know from the previous novel: bitter, cruel, violent, insecure.
The third conversation takes place two years later and is a confession to Anna’s mother. And then the fourth conversation takes place chronologically two months before the first conversation. This is the first confession in the chronology of the narrative, the one Anna makes to her friend Märta who has been enlisted in helping Anna secure a vacation home to be alone with Tomas for a while. And then, the next conversation jumps nearly ten years into the future. This is where Anna comes to visit Uncle Jacob on his death bed, to inform him that things have been broken off with Tomas, that she and Henrik are reconciled, although it is hinted quite strongly that she is no more happy with him than she ever has been. The final chapter is both an epilogue and a prologue. Anna is seventeen and it is the evening before her first communion. She has had a crisis of faith, tells Uncle Jacob that she doesn’t want to take communion. We are to see that this novel is not just a novel of extramarital affair or the hateful way that spouses can treat each other, but it’s a novel of faith, a novel of the human struggle to live the best life possible, just like many of Bergman’s films are.
Despite the psychological depth that Bergman explores in this book, I wonder if he truly sees his mother as a real person. It seems clear to me that he idealizes her in the way that he can’t the alternately abusive and distant father, Henrik. As a three-dimensional character, Henrik is allowed to surprise us. For instance, in the earlier-mentioned initial reaction to Anna’s infidelity. But we feel as if we know him better in these surprises. Anna, though, when she surprises me I sometimes feel as if I know her less, or as if the author may not know her at all, despite his deep love for her. Anna presents herself as wanting to leave an abusive man and an unhappy marriage for a younger man whom she loves. But no one seems to point out to her that the younger man is studying for a degree in theology, just as Henrik was when she met him. That he is a musician, just as Henrik was. Even some of the ways that Tomas expresses himself, the way, for instance, he talks about being frightened, reminds me of the way that Henrik expresses himself in The Best Intentions. The author who, elsewhere, seems so honest, who cuts to the quick, often stepping outside the narrative to make incisive editorial comments, seems naively accepting of his mother’s interpretation of events. It makes me wonder about the way he sees himself. After all, Bergman married five times and also had serious relationships with actresses Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann, with whom he also had a daughter. He was clearly looking for something that he maybe found, or maybe didn’t, in his last marriage to Ingrid von Rosen, the only relationship to last over a decade. Who is to say if his mother wouldn’t have had a similar romantic trajectory if she had been born later. Or if she had been born a man.
Sunday’s Children is both the simplest of the novels and also the best. All three novels are worth reading for no other reason than that Ingmar Bergman wrote them. However, Sunday’s Children would be a great novel by anyone.
The term “Sunday’s children” seems to refer to children who were born on the Sabbath, children with a special insight who can see ghosts and are intuitive, maybe clairvoyant. The concept, if not the story which is much darker, reminds me of Bergman’s film, Hour of the Wolf (1968). Like that earlier film, Bergman seems to be creating folklore from whole cloth. Just by the power of Bergman’s storytelling, we become convinced that there really is an hour of the wolf in Swedish fairytales, that there really are Sunday’s children with special insight. Novelist Gabriel García Márquez achieves a similar effect in his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) where he too creates an entire world of folklore that we live in and believe in, a world where the comical and horrific live side by side.
Sunday’s Children is about eight-year-old Pu, a stand-in for the author as a child. The major events of the book take place over a couple of days during summer vacation. Bergman captures the laziness and pleasure of a summer day when you’re a child, when time seems to go slowly and this slowness can be both an ecstasy and unbearably tedious. He captures the cruelty – and also the humor – of the ways boys, especially brothers, interact with each other. And finally, he captures the intense love that boys have for their fathers even when their fathers don’t deserve it.
As we have learned from the other two novels, the father, who is called Erik here (the name of Bergman’s real-life father), often doesn’t vacation with his family, but instead stays at home to work, only visiting now and then. This is the catalyst for the telling of the story. Erik has come to the summer house the family rents every year and the following day he is to give a sermon at a nearby village and Pu is to go with him. They will ride a bike together, have a picnic, and then go swimming. Pu doesn’t want to go. He wants to stay at the house and play toy trains with his friend. Pu is at that delicate age where children are confronted with the conflict between their desire for what they want and their desire to please their parent. He goes with his father. The action of this trip is very simple, but achieved with such a light hand, with such economical and wise attention to detail, that we’re fully immersed. The trip is disturbing, funny, moving. Like real life.
Interspersed in this story are a couple of flash forwards, what the narrator refers to as “a flashback into the future” (85). Interestingly, these scenes shift point-of-view. Whereas most of the novel is told in third person, these not only shift in time, but in perspective to first person, Ingmar Bergman’s own perspective. Erik is 82 and it is the year 1968. He has muscular dystrophy and seems to be suffering from irrational fears and paranoia which may be a precursor to dementia. Erik’s friend Sister Edit, one of his first confirmation candidates, has come to live with and take care of him. There is a wonderful moment in one of these flash-forwards where Bergman demonstrates that he has truly arrived someplace definite by taking this narrative journey. It’s a moment that argues for reading all three novels so that we can experience it too. Ingmar and Sister Edit are speaking out on the landing outside Erik’s room. Ingmar is talking of how he wishes he didn’t feel such hatred toward his father, how he wishes he could forgive. Sister Edit responds, “You must realize that Erik is my dearest friend, has been ever since my childhood. To me, he is quite a different person than he is to you. I don’t know the person you talk about” (151). This could be a statement for all narrative art which tries to get at the psychology of real-life, historical people. It’s a reminder that no matter how much time we try to build narratives to describe the people in our lives, there are other people in the world with conflicting narratives that remind us that we’ve been wrong all along. How much more difficult to understand our parents, especially when our feelings toward them have been difficult, sometimes even veering toward hatred. We might be tempted to say, “Wait, don’t step toward each other,” if we could be there when they first met. But then, of course, if they hadn’t taken that step, then we never would have been alive to warn them in the first place.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Nortre Maar). His novel The World Out There will be released in 2020 by Madville Publishing, and his fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Grain, The Literary Review, Ambit, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many others. He lives in Queens, NY and is an English professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY.